Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

1875 - 1912

British

Summary

At the turn of the twentieth century, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was entering the height of his fame. Feted by Elgar, Stanford and Sullivan, the young composer’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast had been an instant hit with the public and hundreds of performances were taking place across Great Britain and abroad. The work’s success led to several conducting tours of the United States, during the first of which the man dubbed the “African Mahler” was presented to President Theodore Roosevelt. Born of English and Sierra Leonean parents, Coleridge-Taylor’s music has its roots in Brahms and Dvorak, often taking traditional African melodies for its themes. This distinctive musical fingerprint is also an important statement of cultural identity made at a time when very few black figures were afforded a similar level of recognition or respect. Coleridge-Taylor’s star shone brightly but briefly. He lived a hard-working life and died aged 37 having failed to see a financial reward that came anywhere close to the level of his popular success. In recent years, new recordings of his chamber and orchestral works have begun to appear as interest in this ground-breaking musician begins to reignite.

Biography

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, in 1875. His father, Daniel Taylor, was a Creole from Sierra Leone who had come to London to study medicine before returning to West Africa for a career as an administrator. Coleridge-Taylor, who was named for the poet, was brought up by his English mother, Alice Hare Martin, in Croydon, at that time a suburban town in Surrey on the outskirts of London.

Following music lessons with his grandfather he entered the Royal College of Music aged 15, initially studying the violin before swapping to composition under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford. On completing his degree, he took up a career as a professional musician and was soon appointed as professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music, also conducting the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. He was encouraged in his early compositional career by August Jaeger, music editor at Novello. Jaeger described Coleridge-Taylor as “a genius” to Elgar, who in turn recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival, describing its composer as "far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men". The subsequent premiere of his Ballade in A minor at the festival helped to establish his reputation.

Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest success came with the cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first part of a trilogy – The Song of Hiawatha - setting Longfellow’s epic poem. The work was premiered in London at the Royal College of Music in 1898. Among the audience was Sir Arthur Sullivan who noted in his diary that he had been “much impressed by the lad’s genius”.

The impact of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was immense. In the years immediately following its premiere, hundreds of performances took place around Britain and abroad, most notably in the United States. The work continued to be a staple of the repertory into the twentieth century and annual staged performances of the trilogy (which was first performed complete in 1900) took place at the Royal Albert Hall for two weeks each summer from 1924 until the start of the Second World War.

At the height of his career, Coleridge-Taylor visited the United States on several occasions, conducting his works around the country to considerable acclaim. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society, a 200-strong chorus of black singers in Washington DC was named in his honour and, in 1904, on the first of three such tours, he met President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House; at that time a rare distinction for a person of African descent.

For Coleridge-Taylor however, the artistic success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was not matched by financial reward. Having sold the rights of the work to Novello for 15 guineas, neither the composer nor his descendants received any royalties from the piece despite the hundreds of performances and thousands of copies sold following its publication. Although it was not uncommon at this time for a composer to sell their rights outright to a publisher, Coleridge Taylor’s case played an important role in the creation of the Performing Rights Society in Great Britain in the years following his death.

Aside from the cantatas which made his name, Coleridge-Taylor’s output encompasses chamber and choral music, as well larger works including a Violin Concerto and an opera, Thelma, which remained unperformed until 2012. Many of these pieces incorporate themes from African music in a manner that the composer acknowledged was reminiscent of Brahms’ and Dvorak’s approach to central European folk music. He was encouraged in this aspect of his work by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, several of whose poems he set to music. In 1900 the two men attended the First Pan-African Conference in London, a cause to which Coleridge-Taylor was to remain committed for the rest of his life.

Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia in 1912 aged 37. Performances of his work continued in the years immediately following his death but, by the end of the Second World War, he was remembered almost solely for his Hiawatha trilogy and his music, having fallen out of fashion, was infrequently heard. Although interest in the composer’s life and career has gradually revived since the late 1990s with revivals of long-neglected pieces, a number of recordings and posthumous publications, the full extent of his cultural contribution today arguably remains under-appreciated and awaits rediscovery.

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